If you head out to Julian for some apple pie this fall, take a look to the right just after you pass the tiny town of Santa Ysabel and its famous Dudley’s Bakery. You’ll see a sign for Inaja Memorial Park, home to picnic benches, hiking trails and a tragic wildfire that changed the face of American firefighting.
The 11 firefighters who died in the Inaja Fire of 1956 are memorialized in a monument at the park. And the failures that led to their deaths are remembered in another way — in the “Ten Standard Firefighting Orders” that guide firefighters to this day. They are a product of the lessons learned from Inaja.
In some ways, the orders are simplistic and vague. Even so, “they’re the rules that you never break,” said Matthew Desmond, a Harvard University sociologist who worked several summers as a wildland firefighter in Northern Arizona and wrote a 2007 book about his experiences. “You commit them to memory, your supervisors will quiz you on them and you’ll carry a little card around with the 10 orders on it.”
Desmond was on the phone with former co-workers Monday trying to get information about the 19 firefighters who died Sunday when they were overtaken by a wildfire near the Arizona city of Prescott. Only two other wildfires — in Idaho in 1910 and in Los Angeles in 1933 — have killed more firefighters.
The list of the country’s 10 deadliest wildfires for firefighters also includes two conflagrations in San Diego County: the Inaja Fire on Nov. 25, 1956, and the Hauser Creek Fire on Oct. 2, 1943. Each fire killed 11 firefighters.
The Inaja fire began when a 16-year-old boy from a local Indian tribe lit a match at a campsite. “I just got a crazy idea to throw a match in the grass to see if it would burn,” he later told an investigator, according to a 1956 news report. (The boy would grow up and live until 2006.)